Physical distancing measures present challenges for the visually impaired

Physical distancing measures implemented in Canada should, in theory, serve as a shield against COVID-19. Yet, Nick D'Ambrosio doesn’t feel protected.

Maintaining a distance of two metres is a challenge for the 49-year-old man, who has lost almost all of his vision and now uses a white walking cane.

However, neither the cane nor his vision are sufficient to allow him to keep a safe distance from other people, either in a pharmacy in the Montreal region where he has stocked shelves for 22 years, or during outings for essential shopping.

In addition, D'Ambrosio must sometimes seek help from others—increasing the risk of exposure to the coronavirus—in order to comply with other protective measures, such as using the hand disinfectant dispensers or following marks on the floor to manage crowds in public spaces.

D'Ambrosio considers himself fortunate to have the support of colleagues and loved ones to help him minimize help risks, but new barriers add a dimension of anxiety for the visually impaired in Canada.

“I have been scared for a good part of my life and I don't want to be afraid anymore, '' said D'Ambrosio in a telephone interview. “But am I anxious at times? I would be lying to you if I said no.”

Although COVID-19 is causing damage that is felt throughout society, more and more people are emphasizing the impact of the virus on people with disabilities around the world.

Recently, the Secretary General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, asked governments to pay more attention to the unique needs of their citizens with disabilities.

“People with disabilities are among the people hardest hit by COVID-19,” said Guterres in a statement. “They are faced with a lack of information in public health, significant obstacles to put basic hygienic measures into practice, and inaccessible health establishments. If they get COVID-19, many of them are at risk of developing serious health problems, which could lead to death.”

Canadians with vision loss are among those most disproportionately affected by the virus and measures to protect its citizens, according to a recent survey commissioned by the Canadian Council of the Blind (CCA).

The online questionnaire, which was answered by more than 500 blind, partially sighted and deafblind persons, identified many concerns that touch almost every aspect of daily life.

Almost half of the respondents said that they did not feel safe when they left their home since the start of the pandemic, largely because of the difficulty in following social distancing protocols or other people’s inability to do so.

 Other sources of concern include accessibility to COVID-19 testing sites, the ability to use public transit safely, increased financial vulnerability and the increased negative effects of social isolation on mental health.

CCA President Louise Gillis says Canadians have been the target of contempt because they have unintentionally violated public health measures that are difficult for them to observe.

In most cases, she says, community fears are the result of systemic issues that already existed but are now exacerbated by COVID-19.

“We seem more vulnerable when something happens, '' she says.

The Council's survey found that public awareness and more effective messages from all levels of government are needed to limit the effects and repercussions of COVID-19 on people with vision loss.

D'Ambrosio agrees, and adds that the unique challenges he and his peers face cannot be ignored forever.

“Right now, we are in the early stages and things are changing daily,” he says. “I don't know if this is the new standard, I don't know if it's going to last ... but eventually our rights will have to be heard.”

This article by The Canadian Press was first published May 17, 2020.

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